Dangerous Religions?

Although often riddled with criticism, Scientology has most recently headlined newspapers and news programs all over the world due in large part to its celebrity following. From Tom Cruise and John Travolta to Kristie Alley and Lisa Marie Presley, it would seem that Scientology has taken over Hollywood. But lately, it’s celebrity status has become second to the dangers that many ex-Scientologists claim they dealt with while members of the organization. Most recently, the niece of Scientology leader David Miscavige has come out with a tell-all book about her life as a Scientologist and the fateful day she decided she would take her own life (http://bit.ly/11MxXHY). Although Ms. Miscavige was “saved” from this drastic decision she still anguishes over her lost childhood, lack of education, and abusive upbringing under the church’s reign. But this draws the question as to why some religions become so obtrusive to people’s well-being, and why people feel these drastic measures are the only way to leave the religion.

 

As we saw in class, this situation reflects quite similarly to how certain religions (eg. the Unification Church) accusedly “teach” their members how to take their own life. Although, this is believed to be untrue, the concept of self-harm or suicide in religion seems to be more apparent than ever. But it isn’t just the hope of leaving the religion that pushes people to this extent. Although it isn’t always clear why mass suicides take place or what message is trying to be sent, mass suicides often take place as a warning and can be based on apocalyptic theology. In some of the most extreme examples: 900 members of Jonestown committed mass suicide in 1979 when the group known as the Peoples Temple, led by Jim Jones, wear urged to “die with dignity” as opposed to under capitalist forces. Although some of the suicides are believed to have been voluntary, it has also been reported that some were forced to drink poison or shot if they tried to leave. This mass suicide seemed to stem mostly from fear of power. But it was also widely known that the religion was under scrutiny and constant investigation on how members were treated. There did not seem to be an apocalyptic fear associated with Jonestown but in various other cases (e.g. Solar Temple, Heaven’s Gate) it was believed that through suicide you would be reincarnated or that your soul would find it’s way to another life or world. This is a complete reversal from what is condoned in traditional religions.

 

Out of the three Abrahamic religions, both Christianity and Islam deem suicide a cardinal sin, whereas in Judaism suicide has its exceptions (imprisonment/war camps) – but, of course, is never encouraged. However, suicide is somewhat of a contentious issue amongst new religions. Mass suicides and “devil worshipping” have been widely documented amongst “cults”/new religions which has created a negative and perpetuating stereotype about new and evolving religions – even if they are based on traditional Abrahamic religious values.

 

EAF #341

8 thoughts on “Dangerous Religions?

  1. I really enjoyed reading the article you chose, and the feedback you had in regards to the course content, and society in general. It is important to understand that these new religious movements or what are commonly referred to as cults are not just for “crazy people who have lost their way”, but applicable to many walks of life, including celebrities. This is not to say that they are different in any way as people because of their privileges, but just shows that these movements can have a vast impact on society. I believe that the relationship between “cults” or new religious movements and suicide is a difficult topic. Above all, the Church of Scientology does not have a premise that causes its members to commit suicide, as far as we know. Ms. Miscavige discussed her suicide attempt as a way to remove herself from the personal situation the religious movement had put her in. An important distinction should be made in this context, seeing as her suicide attempt does not make the entire religious movement a dangerous suicide cult. There are many cases in the past where movements have become dangerous in that sense, but this account is a more personal account, not in relation to the desires of the church.

    I liked this choice of article, because it shows an important side to new religious movement membership. Ms. Miscagive was not a member of The Church of Scientology by choice and as a result she suffered immensely throughout her childhood. There is difficulty in society when it comes to understanding new religious movement membership. As we have learned in class, there is a large movement of people who claim that people are “brainwashed” and forced into their situations and must be saved. However, on the alternative side, there are people that state during membership in new religious and afterwards, that they participated as part of their own free will. An interesting dichotomy arises when looking at the removal from these cults. In Ms. Miscavige’s case, she went to extreme measures to remove herself from the movement, and many invaluable things were lost to her. On the other side of the dichotomy, as discussed in class, when removing people from new religious movement, and “deprogramming” them in any way, a lack of ability to make choices in the future and general mental confusion can arise.

    Altogether, I found this article interesting, but I think it is important to examine Ms. Miscavige’s accounts as person, and be careful not to generalize them to the religious movement as a whole.

  2. I was very pleased with your choice of article as it is very pertinent to today’s social environment. I have actually watched a interview with Ms. Miscavige in the past month while she was on Anderson Cooper Live. I have an issue with the generalizability of the story to a greater audience as this story/article/book is based on a single individuals account. As we have learned in class it is common for the media to stigmatize the experience of a small group or individual as a collective truth of the entire movement. I would personally proceed with caution when applying the information given in her book to the Church of Scientology as a whole. Alternatively it is important to consider that when the media stigmatizes and promotes the negative outcomes and conditions of New Religious Movements someone is always benefiting.
    One beneficiary we learned of was organizations who profit from the deprogramming of individuals who are members of a new religious movement. These groups charge obscene amounts of money to remove and restore a member back to their “normal selves”. With the media promoting a negative connotation around all new movements by labelling them all “cults” these organizations profit as family members grow increasingly worried about loved ones involved due to the representations found in the media. The author of our textbook, Irving Hexam states that he opposes the representations found in the media and society about cults and how they are seen to “brainwash” their members. Irving states that brain washing represents a attack on religious conversion in general but also because much there is much evidence that people join out of free will.

    TRD #341

  3. I think when it comes to the media stories of “mass suicides” in new religions we have to treat like we would a story of a suicide bomber or other highly easy to be prejudice against media story, that it is spun a certain way to make the viewers pass judgement and that like any religion old or new, there are bound to be a small group of fanatics. In opinion and as we have learned in the course, the only way to analyze a religion, in this case how obtrusive it is in the lives of its followers is to look at it from a unbias and interdisciplinary way. For example We’d have to look at it’s practices, and see how they shape the followers lives and the primary religious texts and look at how it says the followers should be living. Why we hear stories like this about scientology and other new religions get more attention by the media is because they don’t have the age that the other older religions do so they are not as ‘bulletproof’ or protected as the older ones.

  4. It is always upsetting to hear that a religion which is supposed to bring you peace and calmness can drive you to the extent of contemplating suicide as you brought up with the case of Jenna Miscavige.
    After reading the url you provided in your blog post, it is evident that Jenna had been surrounded by the world of Scientology since a very young age and exposed to its harsh treatment, as she describes, during very sensitive times during her childhood/teenhood. Religions tend to provide a ground motive or overall purpose of good to believers that gives meaning to life and since Jenna could not find that within the religion which she had been raised, the feeling of hoplessness and dread may have then started pushing her too far. Herman Dooyeweerds argues that “individuals are often born and raised in a faith community and die in it”, In Jenna’s case her moment of dispair as she was going to jump from the roof and end her life due to the terrible condition her “faith community” had left her in because she had known nothing more to do at her fragile age of 16 to do in those circumstances.

    Also, I agree in regards to the higher rate of suicidal documentation among newer religions rather than Abrahamic religions. In reference to the five dimensions of religion we discussed in class (belief, practice, experience, knowledge, and consequences) the newer religions may not entirely be able to encompass these aspects of religious definition as easily as the Abrahamic religions do because the criteria was created long after abrahamic religions had become embedded in society. In many Abrahamic religions there is the belief that God and only God should have to power to grant you life or death, on this note defying Gods will by prematurely ending your own life is the reason it is understood as a cardinal sin. Whereas newer religions lacking any deeply etched Abrahamic roots may tend to stray from this belief and life falls within their own hands whether it be their own of that of others sacrificially, which can be seen through the example of the Peoples Temple sparking a mass suicide.
    From what I’ve learned so far, I believe that many religions are well rounded and unsupportive of suicide the further they are rooted into history, and this gives the religion itself a general sense of ‘experience’ from the five dimensions discussed that is carried on through generation if interpreted accurately which helps it to become stable through the dynamics of life.

    -HZR
    #205

  5. When we look at Jenna Miscavige’s decision to leave Scientology and the public way in which she has done it, we also need to look both at her personal incentives for doing so and the societal setting surrounding her decision. While it may be tempting to take Ms. Miscavige at her word without critical questioning, this approach is too simple.
    By leaving Scientology and offering a public and unverifiable testimony, Jenna Miscavige has made herself a public figure. Given airtime on programs such as Piers Morgan Tonight has launched her to fame and couldn’t have hurt the sale of her book. One can’t easily and immediately dismiss Ms. Miscavige’s claims because of their high profile and shocking, powerful, and testimonial nature. But isn’t international stardom and instant profit enough of an incentive for any person to slander any new religious movement?
    Societal setting is also important in analyzing Jenna Miscavige’s decisions and the benefits these choices have brought her way. The American religious landscape is largely dominated by Protestantism and Catholicism. Presumably many members of and leaders of these religions would prefer not to be in competition with rising new religious movements. As written in Understanding Cults and New Age Religions, Evangelical Christians often reject other highly devotional movements and their claims as legitimate, divinely-inspired religions. In the current American religious setting, where these types of groups are prominent, and with a rising number of religiously unaffiliated Americans, the stage has been set for attacks on new religious movements such as Scientology. A platform is immediately offered to those who abandon their often misunderstood new religions.
    Jenna Miscavige and her testimony seem believable and powerful in context of the beliefs that many people hold about Scientology and new religious movements in general before even hearing her testimony. But it is important to be careful when trusting someone who has benefited so enormously from providing such a testimony. Maybe looking at Ms. Miscavige with the critical eye so often used in society’s approach to new religious movements would be beneficial.

  6. When we look at Jenna Miscavige’s decision to leave Scientology and the public way in which she has done it, we also need to look both at her personal incentives for doing so and the societal setting surrounding her decision. While it may be tempting to take Ms. Miscavige at her word without critical questioning, this approach is too simple.

    By leaving Scientology and offering a public and unverifiable testimony, Jenna Miscavige has made herself a public figure. Given airtime on programs such as Piers Morgan Tonight has launched her to fame and couldn’t have hurt the sale of her book. One can’t easily and immediately dismiss Ms. Miscavige’s claims because of their high profile and shocking, powerful, and testimonial nature. But isn’t international stardom and instant profit enough of an incentive for any person to slander any new religious movement?

    Societal setting is also important in analyzing Jenna Miscavige’s decisions and the benefits these choices have brought her way. The American religious landscape is largely dominated by Protestantism and Catholicism. Presumably many members of and leaders of these religions would prefer not to be in competition with rising new religious movements. As written in Understanding Cults and New Age Religions, Evangelical Christians often reject other highly devotional movements and their claims as legitimate, divinely-inspired religions. In the current American religious setting, where these types of groups are prominent, and with a rising number of religiously unaffiliated Americans, the stage has been set for attacks on new religious movements such as Scientology. A platform is immediately offered to those who abandon their often misunderstood new religions.

    Jenna Miscavige and her testimony seem believable and powerful in context of the beliefs that many people hold about Scientology and new religious movements in general before even hearing her testimony. But it is important to be careful when trusting someone who has benefited so enormously from providing such a testimony. Maybe looking at Ms. Miscavige with the critical eye so often used in society’s approach to new religious movements would be beneficial.

    #341
    -KWM

  7. With big-name actors expressing their beliefs in Scientology, there is no doubt that this new religious movement has become popular for various reasons. It is a common factor in a lot of new religious movements that they educate and reinforce the fact that suicide is okay and that they teach their followers how to follow through in this act. There are obviously some negative comments globally directed at this course of action by leaders of new religious movements, but also individuals who have overcome the ‘brainwashing’, have said that this is true. If it is or not, we do not know, but the act in itself is inhumane. Mass suicides can be thought of a way to become free or to escape the “evil” in this world. No matter what the reason, there will always be large problems and negative comments about the practices, leaders and movement itself.

  8. While the big-name celebrities endorse Scientology, thereby giving the public appeal, I would like to propose a difference that may push people to suicide, in particular to Scientology.
    Unlike with other more ‘mainstream’ religions, Scientology calls for a significant monetary investment in order to advance further in their ranks. As an example with Christianity, parishioners are encouraged to donate money within the mass itself, with the intent of said donations going to help the poor (Reflecting some of the teachings of Christian Doctrine.) However, these donations are optional, and have no consequences—aside from minor moral guilt brought on by oneself.
    However, to advance within Scientology, and to have their interpretation of the full truth revealed to you requires a significant (specified) monetary contribution in order for further auditing and study materials. In order to reach the highest level within the church (Known as OT VIII) and become ‘Clear’, some sources estimate the total cost being in the ball park of $260,000. Regardless of your income, this is a significant chunk of cash, and a huge investment into your beliefs.
    Suppose you make it to that highest level… And now you want out. On one hand, the church can see you as a significant investor, and from a pure business standpoint, no business will simply “release” a large source of income. In addition, you’ve invested so much of your money into this church… If you depart, the situation can appear to be extremely bleak and depressing, as you lose both your community, and all that money. In times of desperation… Sadly, suicide can appear to be the only option.

    ~CA #314

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